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U.S. Carrier in Middle East Focused on Missions Over Afghanistan, Maritime Security

Sailors huddle to communicate as an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Arabian Sea on Dec. 18, 2018. US Navy Photo

Afghanistan – not Syria – has been the primary focus of the air wing embarked aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) since the carrier strike group entered U.S. 5th Fleet in early December, USNI News has learned.

As of Thursday morning, the Stennis Carrier Strike Group was still operating in the North Arabian Sea in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, U.S. officials confirmed to USNI News.

In a statement last week, U.S. Central Command described the operation as “providing armed support to deny terror safe haven in Afghanistan and enable the Afghan Security Forces to set conditions for a political solution.”

Stennis was widely expected to enter the Persian Gulf shortly after entering U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility but instead has lingered in the Arabian Sea, conducting operations with the outgoing Essex Amphibious Ready Group and maritime security missions in the region.

Officials in the region would not elaborate on future operations for the strike group.

“We are not going to discuss the timing of operational movements of carrier strike groups into and out of the CENTCOM area of responsibility,” U.S. 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Josh Frey told USNI News in a statement on Thursday. “In general, a carrier strike group is inherently a maneuver force that offers commanders the ability to flexibly respond to a wide variety of missions and contingencies, and is capable of being redeployed rapidly across U.S. combatant command boundaries.”

There has not been a U.S. aircraft carrier operating in the Persian Gulf since USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) left in March. While there, Roosevelt supported operations in both Afghanistan and against ISIS in Syria.

As the territory ISIS has decreased, the U.S. has relied less on carrier aviation for strikes.

Since Roosevelt‘s departure, U.S. airstrikes have mostly originated from land bases in theater as well as limited air strikes from USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The focus on Afghanistan for Stennis air operations comes as President Donald Trump announced this week he wanted all ground forces out of Syria in the coming months. While the Persian Gulf was a prime place from which to launch air strikes against Syria, air operations in Afghanistan are better conducted from the Northern Arabian Sea, sources have previously told USNI News, raising the question of how much a carrier will be needed in the Persian Gulf in the near-term.